The Smallness of Florence

One of the texts for our interactive storytelling class is this, an interactive music video for Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman. As the music plays, a series of comic book style panels scroll past the screen. You are invited to click the panels, causing them to alternate between alternative narratives, where the two characters are either alone, happily together, or together but resentful. Later in the video, you are also given the ability to choose between additional layers of instrumentation that add to Buckley’s singing and strumming.

For a variety of reasons, this work reminded me a great deal of Mountains’ Florence. Like the music video, Florence focuses on a relationship and its ups and downs. Like the music video, the user/player is invited to interact, and explore how the tiny things in relationships can mean so much more.

Florence, like the music video, does not ask much of the user. While Florence is more game-like than the music video, with more defined rules underlying the interactions between game and player, the rules are still simple and easily comprehended. The simple gameplay requires little to no skill and only a mild level of mental engagement from the player.

It’s the perfect sort of game to play on your phone, so it makes sense that Android and iOS are the platforms it was released on. In an abstract sense, Florence is an ‘idle’ game. It’s the perfect thing to play on your commute or when waiting for a friend, when the time you have to play is short or uncertain and the changing environments around you preclude the sort of intense mental engagement more ‘hardcore’ games require.

Yet unlike a lot of the games that are usually referred to as idle games, Florence does not exist to waste your time or compel you to spend money with micro-transactions. Florence fills its moments with an emotional and thematic richness those sort of games frequently lack, and it does so without requiring the same level of player concentration and effort that all-encompassing experiences like Dear Esther or What Remains of Edith Finch do.

It’s tempting to think that to make a game that is emotional resonant or thematically rich or artful in some way you must make a game that is bold and enthralling and attention-grabbing, but Florence and the interactive music video show us another possibility: you can make a thing that is small and humble, and asks only for a small sliver of time and focus from the audience, and still deliver something beautiful. Games like Florence, small but resonant, are uncommon. I can’t think of many others like it. Gorogoa, Device 6, Donut County, to name a few. More of this sort of thing would be cool.

The familiarity of 1917

1917 feels familiar. Its set pieces, the rising and falling tension, the long moving shots are all in many ways evocative of Dunkirk. Even its famous conceit, appearing as if it were shot in a single take, hearkens back to the pitch perfect finale of Children of Men. 

The film is a technical achievement, no doubt, and it hits all the right notes, but I don’t feel the notes. I don’t feel them because I’ve heard them so many times before. I heard them in Dunkirk. I heard them in Children of Men. I heard them in Call of Duty. I heard them in Medal of Honor.

I don’t blame the film for my muted response. It does the best it can, but because the territory it explores is as well-trodden as the muddy trenches our protagonists walk through, it cannot help but feel like a song we’ve heard before. There was one conclusion for me at the end of the film: the cinematic language and thematic territory of war films have been so thoroughly explored that there might not be much left that is truly new.

Maybe there is some new paradigm out there, some new way of portraying the horrors of war, that we have not seen yet. It’s impossible to say for sure. The other question would be this: is there value then, in retreading old ground? Even if the visual language we use in new war films closely resemble war films of the past, is there value in them, in showing new generations the costs of war? In these uncertain times, it certainly feels like there is.

On Rogan

So Joe Rogan kinda sorta ‘endorsed’ Bernie Sanders. And the Sanders campaign picked up on that, and circulated the video of the endorsement.  Rogan is hardly a ideological ‘pure’ figure. His podcast has had guests associated with the alt-right. He himself has said some things that can be construed as transphobic. That said, his influence and reach is not to be reckoned with. His audience isn’t really right wing or centrist. They are frequently cognizant of the fundamental inequalities in society, but they don’t consider themselves left-wing due to their wariness of so-called identity politics.

 So when Sanders signal boosted the Rogan endorsement, it caused a bit of a stir, even among progressives, even among trans people.  The act of accepting Rogan’s endorsement is a tactical one. Rogan’s influence would likely bring many many votes in favour of Sanders. The acceptance of the endorsement implicitly suggests that these votes are more important than the feelings of trans people. 

The thing is, the votes are kinda more important though? If those votes help make Sanders the democratic presidential candidate, then the hope of a Sanders presidency grows brighter.  The feelings of people who are hurt are… well feelings. They are not invalid. They are not unimportant, but in consideration of how to respond to hurt that has been caused, factors beyond the hurt itself need to be considered. 

Is Rogan a figure to be ‘cancelled’? His podcast has certainly been hurtful in various ways, but I don’t think he is motivated by malice. Like his audience, he’s just ignorant. This is evident in his interviewing style. He allows guests to talk without end. Rarely does he disagree or question the claims made by his guests, even when they are so clearly wrong. By exposing himself to guests of wildly varying perspectives and claims, he and his audience end up ideologically rudderless. They have no comprehensive and consistent understanding of the system of the world. 

This can be exploited. 

Rogan’s audience and Rogan himself understand class inequalities, thus the Sanders endorsement. Now they just need to understand that minority issues and identity politics are part of the same system of inequalities. That’s not impossible.

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out but set in Singapore

Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc – Educated overseas. Tries to use Singlish when talking to others but sounds like a Mediacorp actor instead.

Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera – The Filipino maid who does all the real work and tolerates the vaguely racist things she overhears. Under-eats at mealtime because she’s afraid she’ll look too comfortable.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda Drysdale – Tells you how many calories is in that pineapple tart you’re eating without you asking. Gives you your angbao only after talking to you about Herbalife.

Michael Shannon as Walter Thrombey – Votes opposition because he thinks the PAP doesn’t help the poor. Only donates to charity when the President’s Star Charity Show is on. Gives very generous angbaos to the maid. Talks to her in bastardized Tagalog even though she’s fluent at English.

Chris Evans as Ransom – “You’ve seen my videos so you know I’m an internet millionaire”

Don Johnson as Richard Drysdale – Complains about there being too many foreign workers but his company is entirely dependent on them. Gives his employees angbaos containing coins. Wears reflective Oakley sunglasses even when it isn’t sunny.

Toni Collette as Joni Thrombey – Bigwig in the local arts scene. All her artist friends are exclusively Chinese and she hasn’t noticed.

Katherine Langford as Megan “Meg” Thrombey – Rails against capitalism on Facebook. Says she donates her angbaos to charity. She doesn’t.

Jaeden Martell as Jacob Thrombey – Talks to no one at family gatherings. Thinks videogames are getting too political. Likes anime but keeps it a secret.

Contagion and Information

David Fincher has always been known as a director who is interested in *information*. Panic Room’s introductory one take shot, where the camera flies through the house so your awareness of the space, and how elements in the space relate to each other is a classical example of this. Another director who shares this fascination with information is Steven Soderbergh, though he’s less known for this. Ocean 8 and its sequels constantly hint at their inevitable twists, ever so slyly suggesting the possibility of being able to predict the twist, but of course you can’t. 

Contagion, on the other hand, hides nothing. Released in 2011, Contagion depicts the outbreak of a global epidemic and the breakdown of social order as panic, fear and death set in. The film, stylistically, feels almost minimalist. All information known to its characters is known to you, and the information is presented concretely without embellishment. It’s incredible how documentary-like the entire film is. Nothing about the film feels excessively embellished or unrealistic. Soderbergh has complete faith that you will find its subject matter, a global epidemic and the resulting social decay, inherently interesting. 

And it is. This is not a character drama, per se. There are characters and they are vividly portrayed with their own fears and anxieties, but there is no real protagonist and the film frequently shows them to us with a detached eye. The central focus is not the characters. They are, like the symptoms of a disease, indicators of the failing organs of societal infrastructure. The characters, and their manifold positions throughout the world and society, allows us a comprehensive systemic understanding of how the epidemic erodes order. 

That’s what makes Contagion incredibly fascinating. It’s a film that’s not about individuals or personal narratives. It’s a film about systems. It’s a film about infrastructures. It’s a linear medium depicting non-linear dynamics and mechanisms. 

(Wait that’s supposed to be what videogames are good at!)

Essay Proposal: Disco Elysium

Here’s my proposal for my research essay for my interactive storytelling class, on Disco Elysium:

Research Question:

Disco Elysium is a roleplaying game about an alcoholic amnesiac detective who’s tasked with solving a grisly murder amidst an ongoing labour dispute at the local docks, all while trying to recover his forgotten identity (or construct a new one). Upon release, the game was immediately lauded for its nuanced deep-dive into politics and its intricate skill system and how said system tied into the game’s dialogue and character development.

For the essay, I am interested in analyzing the game’s character creation, skill and dialogue systems in order to understand how they allow the player to create a rich and intricate player character with a comprehensive character identity that encompasses personal history, personality and political ideology.

Discussion of Primary Source:

The primary text will be the videogame Disco Elysium, released in 2019 by Estonian studio ZA/UM. The game was met with critical acclaim upon release and was placed on many ‘Best Games of the Decade’ lists by critics. Disco Elysium’s character system is mechanically defined by three main systems: the skill system, dialogue system and the thought cabinet. The skill system directly affects the dialogue system, allowing for incredibly dynamic conversations. The thought cabinet allows for character identity to be defined along defined lines like ‘communist’ or ‘nationalist’ or ‘homosexual’, allowing for richer player characters as well as exploring the tension between player freedom and moral perspectives on certain ideologies.

Expected Findings and Contributions

In Disco Elysium, conversations are not just the words that are spoken between interlocutors. Conversations are constructed out of social rules, and the ability to break or bend them provides a means by which character identity is revealed. Furthermore, every conversation in Disco Elysium is rich with internal commentary provided by the player character’s mind. The internal commentary provides rich and varied interpretations of conversations that reveal the player character’s opinions and perspectives on the world around him.

Disco Elysium’s thought cabinet does not exist in a vacuum. It’s deeply linked to the conversation system. The thoughts that can occur to the player character are spawned and prompted by conversations. If the thought cabinet is a codification of the character’s identity, then the conversations are expressions of that, and it is through consistent expression of perspectives or ideas that prompt these thoughts that come to form identity.

Through player-driven conversations and cognition, Disco Elysium shows us expression forms identity.

Clothing, Cost, Capitalism

There’s this Berlin-based fashion label. They’re called Acronym. They’re the grand-daddy of the techwear fashion ‘sub-genre’, with each item they release being a perfect blend of functionality, performance and urban aesthetics. Dress yourself in Acronym gear and you’ll look like you just stepped out of a cyberpunk dystopia, and with the features and build quality of their apparel, you’re certainly well-equipped for one. Little wonder they’ve done outfit designs for videogames like Death Stranding and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

Here’s the thing. They’re expensive. A pair of pants or a jacket from them will set you back at least 1000-2000 Euros. The justification for this price is manifold. The clothing is constructed out of incredibly high quality fabrics and materials. The stitching is meticulous and durable. The design of the garment is pored over endlessly and field-tested. They are made in Berlin by well-compensated workers. They are built to last years and not to be discarded at the end of a season.

I believe them when they say all this. One of the foundations of techwear is that the garment itself, beyond its visual aesthetic, should be a well-constructed high-performance item. But this isn’t necessarily true of all fashion styles or all fashion labels, yet astronomical or higher tier pricing is not exclusive to techwear.

It made me realize something that I’m not sure is unique to me or not: the correlation of pricing of clothing to quality and/or ethics is completely invisible to me.

What is a fair price for an item of clothing? When you walk into Cotton On or H&M, there’s probably an implicit expectation that at least part of their catalog was sweatshop-made and possibly of dubious quality. After all, how else do you make a t-shirt that costs 15 bucks? But at what price point can you be somewhat certain that a garment was ethically made or is made to be durable and not fall apart a season later? Zara’s items are somewhat more expensive than H&M, but they have been implicated in various labour rights violations and accusations of plagiarizing designs. Uniqlo’s items often feature high performance fabrics, but they too are not innocent of labour rights violations.

On the flip side you have luxury labels like Balenciaga, Prada or the aforementioned Acronym. These labels certainly aren’t mired in the same sort of controversies as fast fashion labels. But are they just overpriced? Are you just paying for the brand? What about more ‘mid tier’ labels like Abercrombie & Fitch? They’re guilty of labour rights violations too.

The fundamental truth of all this is that industrialization, globalization and capitalism have abstracted away the externalities involved in the manufacturing and distribution of apparel. As consumers, often the only information you have on which to base your purchasing decisions is pricing, but that frequently has no correlation with other factors you should consider. I would like to buy clothes that are made to last and don’t end up leaking toxic dyes into a landfill. I would like to buy clothes that were not made by children in developing nations. But I can’t be sure if what I buy fulfill these desires. What information there is about environmental or labour violations by fashion labels is scattered about the web and dense and difficult to remember in an already information-saturated world. Thus we can only buy what looks good. Not what feels good. Not what is good.

A Worm Through the Mind

“You are a worm through time. The thunder song distort you. Happiness comes. White pearls, but yellow and red in the eye…”

As the hiss burrow through and infect the very walls of the Federal Bureau of Control in the videogame Control, they chant a very curious incantation. The words go on and on, seemingly never ending. It’s decidedly unsettling. Between the brutalist walls and the floating corpses, the one voice alive is unhuman.

One of the outstanding features of weird fiction, is that it is often insufficient for a world to be just weird, it too must feel weird. Jeff VanderMeer, foremost practitioner of this subgenre, added a similar incantation to his novel Annihilation. As our protagonist descends the claustrophobic tower buried deep in the ground, words formed of leaves and vines emerge from the walls.

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came forth from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness….”

The words run on. A single sentence with no end. Like the incantation in Control, it unsettles. It hypnotizes. They have their own particular rhythms – a vertigo-inducing continuity in Annihilation’s, a stop-and-start chant in Control’s.

They have their own symbols, both with a multitude that disorients and confuses. To the writer, they likely have some significant meaning, but to the reader/player it becomes a whole – a gestalt that conveys a singular feeling. You are hypnotized into a trance, so that this feeling can burrow into you, so that you will never feel comfortable in the skin of this world.

This can be only achieved with a masterful control of prose, both as it is read and as it is spoken (and heard). It is not only an understanding of structure, of the length of sentences and the arrangement of noun, verb, and adjective. It requires an understanding of particular symbols, not in isolation, but in relation and in juxtaposition and the moods and images they evoke.

It requires an understanding of the nature of the medium itself. Control and Annihilation understand that a particular artistic medium is not merely a means of delivery. The medium is perception. The medium is mood. The medium is the delivery vehicle, but the vehicle can be oh so beautiful.

The City in The City and The City

There’s something Borges-esque about China Mieville’s The City and They City. It’s a book about cities, but a dreamlike visage of them. The titular cities are Beszel and Ul Qoma, but they are not cities as we know them. What defines a city? What delineates it from the rest of civilisation? What defines its culture and spirit? Through Beszel and Ul Qoma, these questions are interrogated.

In Mieville’s world, these cities occupy the same geographical spaces, but as jurisdictions, as cultures, as societies, they are cleaved in two. Some spaces belong entirely to Ul Qoma, some entirely to Beszel, but some spaces are shared, and citizens and visitors alike are duty-bound to only acknowledge the presence of people and buildings in the city they are in. Those that belong to the other city are to be *unseen*. They can be perceived by the eye the way you can perceive these words, but in the mind they must be forgotten, erased, unacknowledged and ignored. Failure to do so is a ‘Breach’, an offense punishable by a shadowy organization, also called Breach. An offender is plucked from their existence and vanished.

As Beszel detective Tyador Borlu investigates a grisly murder, he begins to see how tenuous the separation of the two cities are. The differences in culture, class, fashion, history – these separations are constructs of the mind. They are edifices we put up so that we can be certain – of ourselves, our nationhood, our culture. We unsee those whose clothes are different, whose architecture is different, whose walking gait is different. They are not us.

Through The City and The City, we understand that the city as a whole *does not exist*. A city is but a smorgasbord of societal segments all blended together, yet separated. All cities are multiple cities, divided into our factions and communities despite one another, against one another. Ul Qomans unsee Beszel the way the rich unsee the homeless along the street. Beszelians unsee Ul Qoma the way the Chinese unsee the Indians. We are all guilty of unseeing, of fitting the city to an ideal we want it to be, rather than what it is.

Self-Preservation and Society

The UK Police recently got into some hot water when a internal document describing various ‘extremist groups’ and their symbols was leaked to the public. Among the extremist groups were climate change NGOs like Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, as well as left-wing symbols like Antifa and Anti-Nuclear Power. These were placed alongside right-wing groups and symbols like Neo-Nazis, the swastika, and the iron cross.

It should go without saying that Neo-Nazis are a lot more of a threat than Greenpeace is, and so it’s quite outrageous that they are perceived to be of similar threat to society by the police, but in truth it makes perfect sense that the police would think that way.

Police forces are instruments of the states, acting as enforcers of the law, itself an instrument of the state, and the law as it is so often constructed is designed to be a system of self-preservation of the dominant ideology of the state and society. The law preserves systems. The law is not justice.

The one similarity between the left and right is the desire for transforming society. The desired transformation and the means of achieving said transformation are vastly different. The Left desires justice, where justice is defined as equality, but as the law, despite what the state might claim, does not enforce justice. Naturally the left is seen as hostile. As long as power dynamics like this underlie society, the police are not your friends.